Operating a public WiFi network seems riskier than ever

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 22, 2013

From The News Desk

An Internet connection is a terrible thing to waste. (That's how that saying goes, right?) Months after the Electronic Frontier Foundation pushed for people to open their connections up to strangers via the Open Wireless Movement, a new "six strikes" anti-piracy policy threatens to convince residential and business customers to shutter their Internet connections, lest they suffer the fallout from sharing a connection with a pirate.

Basically, these six strikes policies would allow Internet service providers to offer customers six warnings (makes sense) before affecting their Internet connection. The consequence of ignoring these warnings varies by company -- some will restrict access to websites, another might require customers to take a course on copyright infringement, and another might just let the government handle things. Given the steep fines associated with piracy, business owners might decide that the risk isn't worth the reward and shut their public networks down.

Which is fine by the Center for Copyright Information director Jill Lesser, who tells TorrentFreak that these businesses shouldn't "allow" employees or customers to pirate content anyway, and that opening these connections is a violation of their provider's terms of service anyway. If a business allows anyone whose name isn't on the check mailed to the ISP every month and those people do something illegal, well, that's on the business.

This is why we can't have nice things, like turning a cafe into a public office or taking advantage of a public connection in areas with sub-par mobile coverage. Or, more importantly, an Internet connection when a natural disaster hits and there is no mobile coverage to be found anywhere. Public WiFi could be used to communicate with the outside world and get some information in a time when no other options are available, and those connections could be closed because someone might (key word) pirate something.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was trying to avoid this very problem in November. Its Open Wireless Movement, operated in conjunction with the Internet Archive, the Center for Media Justice, the Open Rights Group, and others, advocated more open connections and fought to dispel concerns about the repercussions of operating those networks. Put another way: The exact opposite of what this new policy is doing.

These six strikes policies might put a bit of a damper on the EFF's plans. Which is more convincing, a nonprofit organization extolling virtues that fly in the face of what many are taught about privacy and security, or six warnings (and, maybe, further repercussions) from the company powering your Internet connection?

Using open WiFi networks carries other, perhaps more damaging risks as well. We published a post yesterday from "white hat" hacker Nicholas Percoco, who frightened anyone who has taken advantage of free WiFi (or enjoyed a delicious Chai latte). Sensitive information, from the websites people visit to their passwords and credit card numbers are all accessible via these open networks, opening business owners and customers alike up to risk.

As if that wasn't enough, Percoco went a step further, writing:

Today, the only place we can assume absolute security and privacy is in our minds. You can have an idea or opinion and no one could access our mind to expose it. You can think the most pleasant thoughts or the most damning ideas and no one will know except you – unless you choose to share it with other through some form of communication. Only true private information exists in your mind. No one can steal that. Yet.
Feeling a little uncomfortable? Me too. Operating a public network opens business owners to risk of legal action, violates the terms of service they agreed to with their ISPs, and makes sensitive data available to anyone with the technological know-how and nefarious intent.

The EFF said that it would develop technologies to secure and hasten publicly available connections, but the Open Wireless Movement is facing opposition on all sides. As much benefit as opening a connection can provide, the risks are frightening enough -- would you be okay with having your information stolen or being held accountable for someone else stealing? -- that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding open connections are at least partially justified.

Maybe this won't end up being a big deal. Maybe we will all still be able to treat our place at the local coffee shop as "ours" and get some shit done. But, if the warnings are effective and business owners fear legal action, maybe we'll find ourselves with less connectivity than before. In our increasingly digital lifestyles, that's bad for everyone -- well, except for organizations that treat every Internet connection like it were the Dread Pirate Roberts.